2 thoughts on “Finding the roots of civic engagement in the public humanities

  1. You raise some excellent questions. Civic engagement certainly is on our minds at a local government level. Our working definition of engagement appears to be: “the process of raising individual or group awareness, stimulating discussion or reaction and creating a sense that a voice has been heard.” What I have found over the years is that more people get engaged through frustration; some engage through witnessing good or inspirational deeds; and most don’t consciously engage until something unusual comes up.

  2. Mary, you ask excellent questions. What do we really mean by civic engagement, and why have councils moved in this direction? I hope others will take up this question and add to our understanding of the turn toward civic engagement and its implications for the future of the humanities not only in public but also in academic life.

    I think all the reasons you put forward had something to do with the councils’ shift from public policy to civic engagement. The first two reasons you name (weariness with the weird instrumentality of the public policy experiment, and aversion to conflict during the culture wars) surely helped to move councils away from public policy programming; while the third reason you name (public desire for a more participatory and less scholar-centered exchange) helped move councils toward community conversations and other forms of citizen-centered programming.

    In another essay, “Four Traditions of Philanthropy,” Susan Wisely and I have identified a similar trend in American philanthropy starting in the 1990s–well before the digital revolution took hold–so I don’t think that the turn toward civic engagement is all that internet-induced. It has more to do with populism and a persistent American pattern of rejecting expertise in favor of citizen participation. In our essay on philanthropy, BTW, we defined civic engagement as follows:

    “We hear calls for different voices in public life—not just the voice of the successful, not just the voice of the expert, but the voice of the citizen. …. In response, foundations and other philanthropic organizations have begun to turn toward a fourth philanthropic way, which some people refer to as civic engagement. They are investing resources in strengthening relationships and nurturing conversations among citizens, in order to build, as the President of the Public Education Network, Wendy Puriefoy, put it, ‘more reflective and resourceful local communities.’ Study circles, neighborhood associations, and the forums sponsored by the Kettering Foundation are examples of this fourth philanthropic response, as is the more ambitious recent initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to ‘partner’ with communities in cultivating local resources for addressing poverty. Ultimately, the goal of these investments may be to relieve, improve, or reform the communities they serve. Yet the focus of the work, and the standard of its success, is building up connections among ordinary citizens.”

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